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California can’t deny pending applications for rent relief while its denials are under review, judge says

“That hearing will probably take place in September, said attorney Lorraine Lopez of the Western Center on Law and Poverty, one of the organizations representing the renters. During the interim, Lopez and her colleagues said, nearly 100,000 households will be entitled to rental benefits without interference by the department.”

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PRESS RELEASE: Judge Orders CA Dept of Housing & Community Development to Stop Denying State Rental Assistance Applications Until Further Review

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

The court agreed that HCD denied applications without meaningful explanation or a transparent appeals process

Oakland, CA – An Alameda County court has sided with tenant advocates and ordered California’s Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) not to deny any pending rental assistance applications until the court can determine if HCD’s process meets constitutional due process standards. The court concluded that HCD may be violating the constitutional rights of tenants who applied to the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) by failing to provide an adequate process for tenants to challenge denials.

“Over the past few months, I’ve worked with hundreds of tenants who received a denial with little to no explanation and are terrified about losing their homes. I’m just so relieved to see the judge take action to address this problem, and to give families a fighting chance to receive the rent relief they are due,” said Patricia Mendoza, Organizer at Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE).

The court also paused the 30-day deadline for tenants to appeal denials, meaning denials issued will not become final. It’s estimated the decision could impact nearly 100,000 tenant households across the state, including those who still have applications pending and those who had their appeals denied. The court’s order does not prevent HCD from approving pending rental assistance applications, including those on appeal.

“At SAJE, we have helped over 300 tenants through our Emergency Rental Assistance Program Clinics; many have still not heard back, or were denied for ‘lack of response,’” said Mateo Gil, Community Organizer at Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE). “There was even a case where a tenant in need was denied for a lack of lease when they had a verbal rental agreement. SAJE and the Keep LA Housed Coalition are working hard to ensure our communities, many undocumented, get their applications processed. Thousands of households are still at risk of eviction, and many of those are possibly going to fall into homelessness without stronger permanent protections now and after the pandemic.”

Last month, ACCE and SAJE, along with research and action institute PolicyLink, filed a lawsuit against HCD for administering ERAP in an opaque and discriminatory way and for refusing to provide adequate explanation to tenants who were denied assistance. Yesterday, a judge agreed that the denial notices HCD sent out are too vague, that applicants have no meaningful way to appeal, and that HCD indefensibly refused to tell applicants which of their documents led to denial. The tenant organizations are represented by Western Center on Law & Poverty, Public Counsel, and Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.

“Too often, tenants have been wrongfully denied rental assistance that they are eligible for. It is crucial to prevent further denials and existing denials from becoming final until HCD gives tenants the information that they need to challenge a wrongful denial,” said Nisha Kashyap, Supervising Staff Attorney for Consumer Rights and Economic Justice at Public Counsel.

The Emergency Rental Assistance Program was created to keep vulnerable tenants housed amid the ongoing economic fallout from the pandemic, but it has been the target of multiple lawsuits challenging how the program was designed and implemented. Advocates point to the latest comprehensive numbers released from the state, which show that as of June 23 2022, 157,881, or 33 percent, of the reviewed applications were denied, putting tens of thousands of people at risk of eviction now that the state’s eviction protections have expired. California received $5.2 billion in federal funds and HCD was charged with creating an application process, screening tenants for eligibility, and distributing the funds.

“We have to keep people housed,” said Madeline Howard, Senior Attorney at Western Center on Law & Poverty. “That’s why we filed this lawsuit — the program was created to prevent evictions but falls woefully short. We are very pleased that the judge ordered HCD to stop denying tenants with this unfair system.”

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Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) is a nonprofit law firm that seeks to achieve equal justice for people living in poverty across Greater Los Angeles. LAFLA changes lives through direct representation, systems change, and community empowerment. It has five offices in Los Angeles County, along with four Self-Help Legal Access Centers at area courthouses, and three domestic violence clinics to aid survivors.

Public Counsel is a nonprofit law firm and the nation’s largest provider of pro bono legal services. It serves communities locally and nationwide by advancing civil rights litigation, advocating for policy change and providing free legal services to thousands of clients annually.

Western Center on Law & Poverty fights in courts, cities, counties, and in the Capitol to secure housing, health care, and a strong safety net for Californians with low incomes, through the lens of economic and racial justice.

Tens of thousands of Californians in limbo as eviction protections end

“Tenants are facing eviction even as their landlords are given these giant checks and tenants who are eligible for assistance are being denied with these cryptic notices that don’t tell them why. It just doesn’t make sense,” said Madeline Howard, a senior staff attorney at Western Center on Law & Poverty, one of the groups suing the state over the program.”

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